In the promise of an “abiding” presence God’s Easter people find not some abstract speculation about a distant or imaginary Trinity, but an invitation to experience the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as a saving and liberating presence in the midst of our day-to-day world.
Readers familiar with John’s gospel will recognize in the opening “I AM” of this lesson a linking of its imagery of the vine with other distinctive Johannine images of the identity and mission of Jesus in relation to that of his chosen community of followers (I AM bread of life, 6:35; I AM light of the world, 8:12; I AM the door of the sheep, 10:7; I AM the resurrection and the life, 11:25).
An “Abiding Presence
From a literary perspective this Sunday’s lesson belongs to Jesus’ familiar address to his disciples just prior to his passion (John 14-16). In these chapters the resurrected Lord comforts and encourages both the Johannine community and hearers today with the promise that we and they are not abandoned or left alone, but can be confident of the Lord’s continuing presence with us in the world. These words thus belong to and help shape a distinctive Johannine eschatology that understands life and salvation not as some distant or “heavenly” hope, but as the promise of an abundant life here and now constituted in the presence through the Spirit of the resurrected and living Lord (see John 3:16-18; 10:10).
Though clearly dependent on Old Testament images of God’s people as God’s vineyard (e.g. Psalm 80:8-16; Isaiah 5:1-7; 27:2-6; Ezekiel 15:1-6), that image is here developed in quite new directions by its association with the characteristic Johannine theme of “abiding” (when coupled with the occurrences in in 1 John, a total of some 64 times out of 118 occurrences in the whole New Testament). Such frequency and focus supports understanding the word “abide” as an alternative and mutually defining word for “believe” (which never occurs other than as a verb in John). Together “believing” and “abiding” point both to the reality of “life in Christ” and to the characterization of that life not in some hope of a future reunion in heaven, but to the promise of that abundant life in the here and now.
The promise of God’s abiding presence in Christ has been anticipated already in Jesus’ words in 14:1-6, a passage whose frequent use primarily at funerals often disguises its intent of giving assurance for life in the present. Jesus speaks of “dwelling places” (the Greek word mone is from the same root as meno, abide) in the Father’s house prepared for those who believe. But use of the same word in 14:23 together with Jesus’ promise to “come again” and “take you to myself” makes clear that this image is not primarily about our going to heaven, but rather confirms Jesus’ promise as resurrected Lord to come and be with his followers. “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
In the imagery of the vine and branches of our lesson, this “dwelling place” or “home” is now developed in the beautiful imagery of the intimate relationship of the Father, Jesus, and Jesus’ followers. Just as the “you” in the passage is always plural, so the intimate relationship of “abiding” binds together Father, Son, and the community of believers in a way that challenges a culture that would often prefer to imagine or even to keep God at a distance. Far from being a cipher for proper ethics or a vision of some cosmic judge who exercises power as the preserver of morality, here a quite different role defines the Father. Because the Father has raised Jesus from the dead, this Word of God now become flesh among us has an abiding and lasting presence — now continues to dwell among us. In the imagery of the vine that presence is underscored as abiding, lasting, and permanent.
To hear this promise has the power to open us to new possibilities of life in the present. It redirects our concerns from questions about the past or from fears about a Jesus who is gone or distant. Perhaps those fears belong even to us, who like Thomas of a few Sundays ago have difficulty in getting beyond the desire to see and to touch as the basis for faith. At least when Jesus was in the tomb, his disciples knew where he was, and they could at least be sure that Jesus had actually lived among them. But it is unsettling when bodies don’t stay where they are buried. Unnerving when we wonder whether God can any longer be trusted.
But now the resurrected Lord addresses us. Twice he promises “I AM the vine.” And in that promise something happens. There is an event in which we “become” something new — we are transformed by a new reality in which we are empowered and commissioned as disciples. That new reality is signaled in several aspects of the Jesus’ promise.
I Am the “True” Vine
The word “true” or “truth” occurs some 35 times in John. It is a key aspect of the description of the vine. That Jesus is the true vine has to do with his relationship to the Father and what it reveals about the Father’s love. All that the Father is and does is now seen in this Jesus who is both the “Word become flesh” and the one whom God raised from the dead. Everything that the Father does, including his work of pruning and cleansing the branches, is tempered and understood through the “word” that Jesus is and has spoken to his disciples (3).
You Are the Branches
Just as Jesus is intimately related to the Father, so the branches can do nothing unless they abide in relationship with their resurrected Lord. In the assertion of the two-fold promise of Jesus — I AM the vine, you are the branches — it is clear that these words are intended not as a command or judgment, but as invitation, summons, and promise. The promise is likewise underscored in its two-fold repetition: apart from Jesus you can do nothing (4, 5).
The promise of “abiding” in Jesus is not for its own sake, nor an end in itself. Jesus imagines and promises a dynamic and changing life for the disciple community. Vines are pruned and cleansed. Branches that wither and die are removed. This points to a constantly changing community that is called to be up and doing. This is a relationship of purpose and power. As if to underscore the call to the exercise of discipleship in the world, six times in this brief lesson the image of “bearing fruit” is raised (2, 4, 5, 8)
Whatever You Wish
This call to “bear fruit” could seem risky or judgmental to our ears, but only if it is heard as the call of some distant or judgmental taskmaster. But here we hear the same promise as the one from Jesus who invites us to pray to a beloved Father — “Our Father…” Such a promise invites us into the abiding relationship in which vine and branches are held together by the one whose glory is seen in his being lifted up on the cross for us and in a Father who also is glorified when those who abide in that Son are revealed in the faithful bearing of fruit in service to the world.
God who raised Jesus orchestrates unlikely relationships that the status quo does not otherwise permit for the transformation of marginalized individuals.
This narrative is the second encounter between the Hellenist evangelist Philip (one of the six chosen for table ministry, including Stephen, 6:1-7) since the persecution that began after the stoning of Stephen (7:54-60). The first was with Simon in Samaria. The conversion of Simon and others in Samaria required intervention from Peter and John from Jerusalem (8:14-16). In our pericope, the intervention is divine. Both the Angel of the Lord and the Spirit speak to Philip (8:26, 29) telling him first to go and take the road down from Jerusalem to Gaza (where he will find a man who is over all the Kandakē’s or Ethiopian Queen’s Gazē, treasury) and then to go join himself to the Ethiopian’s chariot. In Acts the Angel of the Lord releases people from bondage (12:7, 8). The Angel of the Lord and the Spirit facilitate the divine-human encounter that results in releasing the Ethiopian from bondage to the literal text enabling him to see beyond the text to the risen Jesus.
The story of the Ethiopian official is one of several lengthy conversion narratives in Acts (cf. Simon, 8:3-25; Cornelius, 10:1-48). The Ethiopian, like Cornelius, is an important person of rank (dunastēs); authority within the Kandakē’s administration. Initially, his ethnicity is highlighted. Syntactically, he is first an Ethiopian and secondarily a eunuch. His status as a black Ethiopian is significant. Yet, in the second half of the story, the physical condition of the Ethiopian as a eunuch is highlighted (verses 34, 36-39). Eunuchs were excluded from participation in Temple rituals and from full admittance, as proselytes, into Israel’s community. As a eunuch he is ritually or religiously far off. Thus, his conversion embodies and transcends the expectation of “Ethiopia reaching out her hands” (Psalm 68:31; cf. Book of the Wisdom of Solomon 3:14) and being drawn near to God.
The Ethiopian’s anonymity is curious given that Philip’s name occurs nine times in the Greek text. The story is about Philip as an unlikely instrument (based on the ministry limitations placed upon him, 6:1-7) to reach the Ethiopian. If the Ethiopian had been named perhaps we would miss the significance of his ethnicity and his social ranking. No Ethiopians are named among the Pentecost crowd, 2:9-11. As an Ethiopian he represents those who are geographically and ethnically, far away.
Philip must have looked rather haggard having only recently fled Jerusalem with possibly just the shirt on his back, like a vagabond. The Ethiopian was a learned man able to ascertain the literal meaning of the scriptures. Yet, he did not allow his attainments to blind him to his limitations. We should practice a faith that continually seeks understanding rather than an understanding that is seeking faithful followers. God is the ultimate object of our faith, and God remains inscrutable less God become made in our image. God raised Jesus. The humility by which the lamb endured his death is embodied in the Ethiopian. The Ethiopian demonstrated humility in relation to Philip and the scriptures. Despite his high social status, he invited Philip to join him.
The Ethiopian was reading the scripture passage (Trio-) Isaiah 53:7 from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible or the Septuagint. The text is about a metaphorical lamb led to slaughter, silently enduring his death and whose life is finally taken up from the earth. The eunuch asked whether the text was autobiographical or about someone else. This question may seem strange to a Christian indoctrinated his whole life to believe this text speaks about Christ. Surely then (and now) many persons died courageously for what they believed.
One did not open his mouth so that others could. Similar Greek words that characterize the lamb’s silence and humility, “he did not open his mouth” (ouk anoigei to stoma autou), introduce Philip’s explanation of the scriptures, “and Philip opened his mouth” (anoiksas to stoma autou). Philip told the Ethiopian the good news about Jesus, verse 35. Strikingly, the Ethiopian is referred to as the eunuch, beginning with his request that Philip explain to him the scriptures, verse 34. The eunuch responds to the good news by expressing a desire to participate in the ritual of baptism (cf. 2:41). Both Philip and the eunuch enter and emerge from the waters together, verses 38-39. Why did the Ethiopian so readily accept Philip’s interpretation? Perhaps, even though the text does not say so, the Spirit spoke to the Ethiopian too, just like God gave dreams/visions to both Peter and Cornelius bringing them together to effect a household conversion.
How might we envision what God accomplished in the encounter, which is never exactly the same as the story told? God is living and multi-dimensional; so is life. One can read the words of the text without being able to experience or see in the text what God did in Jesus. The text must be interpreted or translated. The Greek word that we translate as read literally means to know up (Greek: anaginōskō ; a combination of the preposition ana, translated as up and the verb ginōskō interpreted as to know). To interpret is to seek to understand what the words signify or point to beyond the symbols on the page.
The Spirit, a constant presence, snatched up Philip who landed in Caesarea. This is God’s Spirit doing as it pleases and not boxed in by human expectations and limitations. We find here no broken pattern in Acts of how or when God’s Spirit anoints people. Sometimes Luke narrates visible manifestations and sometimes he does not. Just because we construct a theology that boxes God’s Spirit in does not mean that God IS in the boxed.
The prophet asks, Who will tell his story? The metaphorical lamb’s story is thrice told in this context — in the text read, from Philip’s mouth, and by the Ethiopian as implied by his going his way rejoicing. The good news about Jesus should evoke rejoicing especially among those living on the margins needing to know what the text means for them. The Ethiopian’s story vividly demonstrates how God in the Jesus-event will and can draw different persons, not of our choosing, to experience the power of the resurrection.
How odd is it, during Easter, to return to the Psalm of Good Friday, the chilling scream of the crucifixion?
We would prefer to move on, to get over it, to sound the resurrection trumpet and roll the stone back to erase the unhappy memory of Good Friday.
But the crucifixion is always the Gospel. You can’t get to Easter without Good Friday, and the resurrected Jesus still bears the wounds in his hands and side (John 20:27). The triumphant hymn by Matthew Bridges proclaims the eternal union of not just the Psalm but the salvific act in Christ: “Crown him the Lord of love; behold his hands and side, rich wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified.”1
And the fact is, Jesus the Messiah came, but the Messianic era has not exactly dawned. The ache persists, sin grows like kudzu, and we still cry out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Much has been written about the need for the Church to recover the “lament.” We have forgotten how to lay our sorrows down before the Lord — or have we? Perhaps too many of our prayers are half-hearted laments; we plead to God for help and express our discomforts. What we then do not have is patience. We lack an understanding that in this realm, on this side of eternity, God does not swiftly reply, righting all wrongs and smoothing our paths. We want to piece together a brief lament, a quick prayer request, even strengthened by a prayer chain from friends — and God should intervene now and give us what we ask for. We would really prefer to skip right over the lament, but God lets us stay with the pain, God invites us to meet God in the darkness.
Evocative Images The Psalms are indeed, as Christoph Barth put it, a “School of Prayer.” They are not a primer in how to make your prayers effective but a lesson in how to find God and live in union with God. Psalm 22 illustrates the wide range of emotions, yearnings, and destinies in our life with God. If we read past its rightly famous first verse, we are jostled by the rich language of the Psalm and the grand reversal that arrives late in the day but just in time.
In Preaching the Psalms, Clint McCann and I recommend two approaches to preaching a Psalm.2
First, one can explore an image, which is not taken literally, but fruitfully probed as evocative. Or second, one can explore the movement within the Psalm, a shift in the mood of the one praying. In Psalm 22, both approaches are fruitful.
The images are startling and hyperbolic. Graphically and poetically, they elicit a deep emotional resonance within us. The Psalmist moves from a child on its mother’s breast to being surrounded by bulls, from being poured out like water to feeling like hot wax, from a broken old piece of pottery to growling dogs.
In addition, we not only preach the images of the Psalm, we might imitate the Psalmist and deploy a few imaginative metaphors ourselves.
Lament to Praise Like most Psalms, the 22nd is not a still life, portraying only the agony of an ancient Psalmist or Christ breathing his last. Instead, the Psalm exhibits a drama, an inner movement that transports the reader to a new place, an unanticipated destination. The reader is taken on a pilgrimage from sorrow to joy, from desolation to hope, from cross to glory.
Psalm 22 is a lament, and like virtually all laments, there is an inevitable miracle of grace, a mind-boggling shift from lament to praise.
Here we see that the lament is not about me expressing my inner angst or pouring out my soul. Rather, the lament is about God who knows my grief but does not leave me alone and perhaps even joins me in the pit. God lifts the poor from the ash heap. Indeed, God feeds the poor, and with an explosion of scope, all nations come around to worshipping God!
When Jesus, in his hour of dereliction, recalled the 22nd Psalm, was it simply to utter the cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). Had he not memorized the entire Psalm, as good Jewish boys would?
Did he, even on the cross, fast forward in his mind to that turn to praise, the dawn of the new day pledged in its closing verses which we read now, appropriately, during Easter?
The praise and hope in the face of darkness is no utopian fantasy. What the Psalm voices will happen! And it will happen because of the cry at the beginning of the Psalm.
Once Christ was forsaken, we never will be. God’s plan for humanity, for the very earth itself and the universe, will be fulfilled because God forsook Jesus and let him suffer in order to embody the wondrous love of God. So great was that victory hinted at in Psalm 22, even those “who sleep in the earth” shall bow down! Perhaps Paul had this Psalm in mind when he languished in prison, bearing much physical pain, when he spoke of Christ emptying himself, humbling himself, obedient unto death on a cross (cf. Philippians 2:7-11).
Notice that the raging “Why?” is never fully answered. Our query, “Why do bad things happen?” is not resolved. But we hope. For we have sung the Psalm with God’s people, who have borne every conceivable agony over countless centuries. And we find ourselves carried forward on the tide of their faith, on the surging wave of the powerful grace of God.
1“Crown Him with Many Crowns,” verse three in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), #855. 2James C. Howell and J. Clinton McCann, Jr., Preaching the Psalms (Nashville: Abingdon press, 2001).
This pericope seems to be a review of what we have heard from 1 John over the previous two weeks.
Here again, we find the call to love one another, woven together with that love’s foundation in God’s prior action for us in the Son. Confession of faith and love for one’s brothers and sisters in the church are again inseparably joined, as they were in the previous Sunday’s reading. Here again are words about abiding in God and God abiding in us.
So, what’s new here? With this pericope replaying the themes of chapter 3, the preacher may have difficulty if she’s preaching a series on these readings from 1 John. However, perhaps that sense of déjà vu is a point that one might explore. We never get beyond God’s love for us in Christ and how that is lived out in love for one another. We are always drawn back to that central, and centering, claim. We know God’s love, first and foremost, in the Son; and we know God’s love because we have witnessed it in love for one another. This text may serve as a reminder that we never grow beyond our need to hear again the gospel of God’s love in Christ.
Verse 7 immediately grounds the call to mutual love in the claim that love comes from God, and that those who love are God’s children and know God. There may be theological room here to suggest that all genuine love is a sign of God’s gracious activity and presence, even apart from Christian faith, but this is not the author’s interest or focus. God’s love for us has been made known in a specific person, in the Son who was sent by God (verse 9).
It is this insistent rooting in the sending of the Son (repeated in verses 10, 14) that gives this love a particular character quite different from the sentimental or self-serving content that we otherwise might use to define what “love” means. This is the sense in which we must say that “God is love” (verse 16). We cannot reverse the elements of that claim and say “love is God.” We would then remake God in the image of an attitude, or ideal, or emotion. God is love because God has been made known in the act of sending and giving the Son for us, the action that is perfect and eternal love. Verse 10 insists that when we talk or think about what love is, we must begin with God’s action (as verse 19 also makes clear so eloquently).
Verse 11 makes a move that by this point in 1 John should come as no surprise: from the certainty of God’s love for us comes the call to love one another. One new element here is that this mutual love answers the impossibility of seeing God (verse 12). The incarnation meant that the grace, glory, and love of God had been made visible (see 1:1-4). With the incarnation no longer visibly available to us (i.e., on this side of Easter), the author points to the love of the church as the place where God’s own love may be seen. God’s loving intent is completed (“perfected” in verses 12 and 17) only when that love is lived out in relation to the rest of the church. For those who look for some demonstration of the reality of God and of the gospel, the church should be able to point to its mutual love and say, “come and see.”
The insistence on the confession of Jesus as the Son of God in verses 14-15 leads immediately to the claim that we have come to know and believe in God’s love (verse 16a). What NRSV translates in verse 16 as love “for us” is in fact the same construction translated in verse 9 as “among us,” and that would be an appropriate translation here as well (see also verse 17a).1 The meaning is not primarily that we each believe that God loves us individually. There are ways in which singing “Jesus loves me, this I know” can become heretical in its self-focus. God’s love reaches its intended goal only when it creates a community of continuing love, when it becomes “God’s love among us.”
The love that God shows toward each is certainly distinguishable from, but in the end not separable from, the love lived within the church. Verse 16 claims that we recognize and believe that God’s love is active and known in the mutual love of the church, a confession that too often is contradicted by the shallow or absent love that may in fact characterize the church. 1 John would excuse none of that. Failure to love one’s brothers or sisters is a sure sign that one does not truly know or love God (verses 8, 20).
Much of the anger that erupts within the church under the banner of loving God and defending God’s truth often seems to grow instead from love of self and of the power that comes from winning the argument, even at the expense of the church’s unity in love. The gospel of God’s love for us in the Son sets us free from such loveless (and fearful, verse 18) pursuits. Though the author, in talking about those who fail to love (verse 20), probably has in mind those who had left the community, the text also serves as a warning to the readers against excusing loveless practice in the name of theological rectitude. This author will not allow the sacrifice of love for the sake of truth (as though they could be separated), and continually brings us back to the only place where we can learn how to love faithfully: the prior love of God for us in the sending of the Son.
1See Judith M. Lieu, I, II, & III John. The New Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 184, 192.